Monday, January 31, 2011

Close Call and Maisie Pictures

Our barn is effectively a co-op.  All of the boarders have to do some volunteer work - ordering and unloading hay, feed and bedding, pasture maintenance, dragging the arena, driving the manure spreader, selecting and supervising contractors, maintaining books and records, etc.  We all clean our own stalls and paddocks and owners turn out their own horses on Saturday and Sunday.  We do have a wonderful lady who comes 6 days a week to bring in and feed the horses in the afternoon, and Jill and I split the morning feeding and turnout duties.  On Saturday afternoons, we take turns bringing in and feeding the horses. There are currently 8 horses and 6 owners.  With the rotation, each owner brings in and feeds about once every 6 weeks or so.

We've had some trouble with this in the past - if you don't do the p.m. feeding duty frequently, it's possible to forget something or make a mistake.  But there are mistakes and then there are mistakes.  One time several years ago, a boarder who is not longer at the barn make the mistake of feeding Dawn insufficiently soaked beet pulp.  I know there are those who say this is OK, but Dawn choked.  Veterinary emergency - she recovered just fine but had to be tubed to dislodge the blockage.

This past Saturday, the p.m. feeder made a serious mistake.  Now, tell me, do these two horses look alike to you?

Maybe a little, but not a lot - they're both chestnuts/sorrels, with one white anklet on the same hind foot.  But their face markings are completely different - Pie's star is differently shaped and he has the stripe and snip, and although they're about the same size, they carry themselves differently.  Fritz also wears front shoes, which is noticeable when you're leading him down the barn aisle.

Anyway, on Saturday, the p.m. feeder, who has had a horse at the barn for years but spends little time there - she doesn't ride or work her horse any more - put Fritz into Pie's paddock and Pie into Fritz's stall.  She's known Fritz for years too, although she's only met Pie recently. Her mistake wouldn't have been so bad, except that then she fed them the wrong dinners.  Pie gets only 1/2 pound of our vitamin/mineral balancer pellets plus a little cocosoya oil.  Fritz gets that but he also gets a pound of Ultimate Finish to help him maintain his weight.

Pie was delighted to get the extra food and polished his dish.  When I got to the barn about an hour later, I saw a chestnut horse running frantically in Pie's paddock.  Poor Fritz was soaking wet with sweat and was very upset.  Fritz has had episodes of colic in the past, often brought on by stress. I brought him in and switched him with Pie.  Fritz got a towel-down. I checked Pie's feet - all four were very hot - his feet are normally quite cool.  Not good.  I put him in his paddock. Then he ate his hay for a bit and lay down.  Really not good.  He wasn't agitated but was clearly not himself.  He had good gut sounds on the right side, but not as good on the left, and he didn't want me touching his left side.  He got up after a bit and continued eating his hay - better, but his feet were still hot.  He was walking just fine, which was good, but sometimes foot soreness takes up to 36 to 48 hours to develop after the carb overload.

I called the vet, and talked to the on-call vet who happened to be our regular vet.  She said that a single pound of Ultimate Finish wouldn't cause a problem in most horses - it's a relatively low-carb feed - but some horses are more sensitive to feed changes and excess carbohydrates.  She said it was good that Pie was outside standing in the snow, and had me give him 2 grams of bute.  He did leave several normal piles of manure while I was with him. We decided not to tube him with mineral oil as he was back up and eating and his colicy symptoms seemed to be going away.  He did leave several normal piles of manure while I was with him.  The risk continued to be the metabolic effects of the sugar overload, and the vet felt that anti-inflammatories were the way to go.

The good news is that Sunday morning at feeding time Fritz was fine and Pie's feet were back to normal - nice and cool.  He'd eaten well and his manure was plentiful and normal.  He got bute again Sunday and this morning to make sure the inflammation - a mild case of laminitis (here's a good reference on laminitis and is also a very good resource) - is completely gone.  I'm to call the vet to come if the heat in his feet returns - she thinks he's over it and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.  There's been some slight warmth in either the front feet or the backs from time to time over the past two days, but nothing that compares to how hot his feet felt on Saturday, but the vet says that's likely not an issue if he's moving around normally and the digital pulses aren't strong.  He's shown no signs of discomfort in walking or moving around at any point, which is good news.  As of this evening, all four feet were nice and cool.

The other good news is that Pie is perfect for taking medicine by mouth, even after repeated times of being dosed with nasty-tasting bute.  He stands there on a loose lead and just lets me stick the tube in his mouth.  I was even able to take some of the excess off the syringe that didn't make it into his mouth and put it on my finger and stick my finger in the corner of his mouth to put it in.  (I should have checked this before it was a necessary situation in case some training was required, and was lucky.)  Good Pie!

When we go on grass this spring, I'll have to keep a special eye on him to be sure the introduction is very gradual and that he's not getting more than he can handle, as he may be extra sensitive to carbs.  This mishap is also a good reminder of how important it is to make feed changes gradually.

We all make mistakes from time to time, but a feeding error of this type can lead to permanent damage to the horse.  I'm not feeling very friendly right now to the person who did this.  I've made my share of mistakes with horses, even serious mistakes, so I expect I'll forgive her in time.  I'm sincerely hoping she is no longer doing the Saturday rotation by the time Drifter arrives - he looks even more like Fritz - he has a smaller star and no other face markings, but he's more robustly built and has no white on his legs.  The good news is that Pie seems to be doing OK and I hope that continues.  He's supposed to have a few days off from riding to reduce the concussion to his feet, but we're getting a big snow storm shortly to be followed by that wonderful sub-arctic combination of high winds and cold so there'll be no riding for a bit anyway.

But that was much too close a call for my liking.

* * * * * *
And here are some pictures of sweet, pretty Maisie enjoying her retirement down at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee - thanks, Melissa!

Maisie herself has had two episodes of laminitis, which were much worse than Pie's - she could barely walk and ended up with event lines on her feet but fortunately had no rotation - both episodes were in the spring and we believe related to grass/carb sensitivity.  This spring will be her first spring in Tennessee, and we're expecting her to do better down there as their grasses are mostly warm-season rather than cool-season grasses.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Working Towards Softness 6 - Leading Exercises

For the other posts in the "Working Towards Softness" series, please see the sidebar.  And, as always, please keep in mind that I am not a horse trainer, just a horse person who works in the best way I know how with my horses.  There is no one right way to work with horses (although in my opinion there are wrong ways) and this is just how I go about it.  I think of these exercises as progressive, although after you have begun to get the feeling of softness in your own mind and body, the later exercises don't necessarily have to be done in order - it may depend on what the particular horse needs to work on.

* * * * * *
Also, in the case of this post, be sure to first read post 5 in this series - "Basic Leading".  A horse needs to lead well, first, before the exercises in this post will be of much use.

The bridal march.  This one's fun, and you can do it anytime you're leading the horse.  The horse should be leading well on a loose rein.  Now take four regular steps and then two short steps, and then four regular steps, then two short steps.  The objective is for the horse to pay attention to you and not intrude into your personal space when you slow down and to keep up when you speed up.  Vary the numbers and combinations of steps.

Crazy walking.  The purpose of this exercise is to further develop the horse's leading skills, while also developing the handler's and horse's attention to each other.  It's fun, too!  Although I call it "crazy walking", it doesn't have to all be done at a walk - changes of pace can be part of the picture as well.  What I do is to lead my horses in complicated patterns, sometimes using cones as reference points.  These patterns can include turns to the left and right, halts, backing, halt/walk/halt, walk/trot/walk and halt/trot/halt transitions, u-turns and figures of all shapes and sizes.  The horse is supposed to move with me and pay close attention to follow my directions, on a loose lead and without intruding into my personal space.

Here are Dawn and I trotting together, about to make a turn to the right.  Dawn is wearing her fuzzy nose halter, which I use for most of my groundwork exercises.

One step back.  No, I don't mean the two steps forward, one step back sort of thing - although that's a frequent occurrence, at least for me. I mean the one step back, when you're on the ground and ask the horse to take a step away from you, either by gentle pressure on the lead or with another cue (I also use a raised hand with palm out). If you think about it, this is the fundamental thing - asking the horse to slightly move the feet - just one step - at our request. If the horse can learn to do this, consistently and as a matter of course, it is the foundation for all our directing the feet of the horse and allows us to create safe boundaries for our personal space on the ground. That's really all there is to it - it's so small and yet so fundamental.

And, if you do this exercise carefully and attentively, it's great practice in developing your own feel - if you can signal the horse with the softest possible cue to take one step back, and then give a release as the horse is thinking about taking the one step, you'll get a single step back and no more.  If your release is late - if you wait until the horse has taken the step - you'll likely get more than one step back.

One step at a time.  Again, this one's about developing your own feel and timing, so your cues can be as soft as possible and your releases as early as possible.  Ask the horse with the lead to take one step and one step only, as softly as you can.  If your ask is too big or your release too late, the horse will take more than one step.  Eventually, you should be able to ask for shifts of weight with no step occurring - your ask will be almost as soft as a whisper.  To vary this, ask for one step over a pole.  (In any exercise where the horse is being asked to step over a pole, I prefer to use heavier wood poles rather than the light PVC ones which can roll if touched or stepped on.) Then focus on asking different feet to move - ask in a way that your release occurs as soon as the right hind, say, is about to leave the ground so that's the last foot to move.  This exercise comes in handy for trailer loading and also any time you want the horse to move its feet carefully and precisely.

The maze.  This exercise further refines the precision of the horse's and your leading together.  Here's what it looks like - that's Lily's nose on the right side of the picture:

The exercise is easier when the poles are set more widely, and more difficult if they're set close together - start with them wide to set the horse up for success, and move the poles closer as the horse and you learn the exercise.  The objective is for you to lead the horse into the maze and carefully direct the horse around the tight turns - it's a more complicated version of the one step at a time exercise, involving steps to the side as well to make the turns.  Take it very slowly - the objective is quiet, calm and precision.  Many horses will find a turn in one direction more difficult than in the other direction.  This exercise can also be done ridden, but your horse will find it easier to do if the horse knows how to soften under saddle, and you know how to use the softest possible cues.  If you overdo it, or are late with  your releases, the horse will not be able to stay within the boundaries.

The keyhole.  This is similar to the maze - you lead the horse into the keyhole and carefully and slowly turn the horse and exit the keyhole - again, quiet, calm and precision are the objectives.  As with the maze, this one can be done ridden.

Backing between two poles.  Set two poles parallel to one another - again, start with them fairly wide and narrow them as you and horse learn how to do the exercise.  Ask the horse softly to back between the poles - start with only one step back at a time and add steps as the horse gains confidence that you will direct him safely through the obstacle.  Make sure your horse already knows how to back softly in hand before you attempt this exercise - see post 3 in this series on simple in-hand exercises.

You can probably think of other exercises of this type - use your imagination!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Photos of the Work

I almost always work my horses alone, which means that I rarely get any photos of the work we do together.  Next year I'll try to do better at recruiting photographers.  For now, I've gone back to some of the softening posts and added in the few photos I have.

In post 3, I've added a few photos of Dawn backing in hand in the bridle - we were also working on one step back, which will appear in post 6, and in post 4 I've added some pictures of ground tying, standing and waiting under saddle and Dawn working on standing still at the mounting block.  As I do new posts, I'll put in the photos I have.  And, when there are new photos, I'll add them in as well.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Working Towards Softness 5 - Basic Leading

For the other posts in the "Working Towards Softness" series, please see the sidebar.  And, as always, please keep in mind that I am not a horse trainer, just a horse person who works in the best way I know how with my horses.  There is no one right way to work with horses (although in my opinion there are wrong ways) and this is just how I go about it.  I think of these exercises as progressive, although after you have begun to get the feeling of softness in your own mind and body, the later exercises don't necessarily have to be done in order - it may depend on what the particular horse needs to work on.

* * * * * *
I think a lot of people have trouble leading their horses and handling them on the ground.  To me, good leading and good ground manners are essential building blocks, both for safety, and also to develop attention in both the horse and handler.  If a horse leads badly, it's because the horse has never had clear, consistent direction as to how to lead - not because the horse is "disrespectful" or bad.  Because of that, if I can provide that direction, many if not most leading issues pretty quickly go away.  I have a whole set of leading exercises I do to develop the horse's (and my) attentiveness and relationship, but those exercises can't be done unless the horse knows how to lead well.

I use a web halter and a 10' cotton lead - with a plain brass snap, not one of those bull-headed snaps, which tend to bang the horse in the chin.  I also don't use chains - those are control/pain devices that can keep you safe if you're leading an untrained horse, but they're not training devices.   I will on occasion use a rope halter, particularly if a horse has had serious (i.e. dangerous) leading issues in the past, in order to be able to firmly remind the horse if necessary that staying out of my space is not negotiable.  (We have one horse at our barn, Sugar, who came to us with a extremely dangerous leading problem - she could not be led at all and would do anything to get away from you on the lead, including directly and deliberately running into you with her body - and if you applied any pressure at all she would quickly escalate the behavior and completely panic, putting any handler at serious risk.  It was like playing football with a 1,200 pound linebacker. This was a learned behavior and was not aggression but rather fear related, likely from prior mishandling.  We told the owner that she had to seek professional assistance as we could not safely handle the horse.  The problem was solved by sending the horse to a good trainer for several months of training.  She leads well now, but we lead her in a rope halter.  This is an unusual case in my experience.)

First, to lead a horse you must have defined for yourself the boundaries of your personal space.  This has to be definite and clearly and consistently communicated to the horse.  Every interaction you have with the horse is a continuous series of asks and answers on both your parts - a conversation - and if you miss the horse asking if it can do something ("can I stick my head into your space?"; "can I head butt you?"; "can I graze on the lead?"; "can I bump my body into you?") and don't give the horse an answer, the horse will make its own decisions and the results may be ones you don't like and then try to correct.  A lot of people also get in the habit of "nagging at" their horses - be direct and clear and, as you're establishing your boundaries for the horse, get as big (making noises, waving your hands, whatever is needed to get the horse's attention) as you need to.  Pretty soon, once the horse (finally) has a clear idea of what you want and can do it, things will go along pretty well.

So, what are the boundaries of your personal space?  In my case, it's an arm's length - the horse is supposed to stay outside this bubble at all times - when calm, when excited, when startled.  If a horse is seriously startled and needs to move its feet, that's OK provided the horse stays outside my bubble.  I can approach closer to the horse than this, but the horse cannot approach me.  If the horse does, I get as big as I need to to remove the horse from my "bubble".  My usual ways of doing this are to hiss (facing the horse helps too) and sometimes to wave an arm or swing the end of the rope to get the horse to back off.  Pretty soon the horse gets it, but only if I'm consistent - if the horse is outside my bubble nothing's going on, if the horse comes inside the bubble, I say something.  I want the horse to stay outside my bubble on its own, so I don't move the horse by pushing/touching with my hands, by using a whip or by pressure/wiggling/jerking on the lead.

Once the horse understands your bubble, you can work on leading - this tends to happen all at once in practice, but I've broken it down because the personal space issue is so important.  The next thing you have to decide is where you want the horse to lead - next to your shoulder or behind you.  I lead with the horse behind me (except when leading two horses at once who might cause trouble if led together behind me - but that's a special case) rather than at my shoulder.  There's no right and wrong on this - I lead with the horse behind me for some specific reasons.  I like the way it allows the horse to follow me - to follow my leadership - I think this is easier for the horse and allows the horse to pay better attention to me when it's literally following me. I've found that it's a lot easier for the horse to get ahead of me - to lead me - if the horse starts at my shoulder, and that people are more likely to nag at the horse or keep pressure on the lead if the horse is next to them.  Turns are easier if the horse is behind you and the horse is less likely to get inside my bubble on turns.  Some people are worried that they can't see what the horse is up to behind them, and that the horse may run them over if it spooks.  I think it's just as likely that a horse next to you could spook sideways into you, and in fact it may be more likely if the horse is leading (ahead of) you.  I actually like having the horse behind me - I have to pay closer attention to where I'm going, the horse has to decide to do what I've defined on a loose lead and I can hear and sense the horse behind me just fine by just slightly turning my head and also listening to the footfalls.  Not that it's never going to happen, but I've never been run over by a horse on the lead behind me because my bubble is established - I keep a close eye on horses that are still learning to be sure they stay outside my bubble, and frequent stopping (described below) may be necessary in the learning phase.  I have horses get scared or spooked on the lead, but they don't run into me - they may run past me and turn to face the monster but they don't run me over.

As I'm working with the horse on defining my bubble, I frequently stop and approach the horse and praise it - this reinforces that I can enter the horse's bubble and also helps the horse know it is doing the right thing.  But how do you have the horse stop without intruding into your bubble, and without having to ask the horse to do so?

So, now you've got your horse leading in whatever position you've decided, on a loose lead and staying out of your personal space.  Practicing stopping, starting and turning is a good exercise.  When I stop, the horse is supposed to stop before it gets inside my bubble, even if my back is turned (although I face the horse as we're training this).  When I go or turn, the horse is supposed to follow.  For stopping, as I train it I focus on the feet, not the head - this tends to take the emotion out of things and is more precise.  I'm leading the horse and want to stop.  To train this, I stop and turn partly or completely to face the horse.  My objective is for the front foot that is in motion to plant and stop and for the other front foot to not travel closer to me than the first front foot - that is, the horse is to halt but without that second front foot passing the first one.  There's no magic to this - it's just an easy and precise way to define "stopping".  If that second front foot passes the first one, I say something to the horse - moving it backwards with my voice (hissing) or by waving an arm and taking a step towards the horse.  You might have to get bigger the first couple of times until the horse gets the idea.  Then we do this over again as many times as are necessary to get consistency - but the consistency has to come from me.

On turns, if you're turning the horse towards you, be careful that the horse still stays outside the bubble and doesn't get ahead of you or anticipate and drop its shoulder towards you.  The horse should follow your lead and only move when asked to - this is one of the reasons I like the horse to lead behind me as it makes turns in any direction much easier.

When leading in a straight line or turning, I want to be able to slow the horse's pace by just slightly turning my head over my shoulder - if I look towards them they should slow.  If I go slower or faster, they should do the same without my having to do anything else.  Eventually, I don't have to look towards or at the horse for it to slow or stop - it just happens automatically.

With a horse that balks or won't lead up - I want my horses to follow on a loose lead rather than having to be towed - I don't stand there pulling on the lead.  That would just be participating in the brace. Instead I almost instantly get the horse's feet moving.  A moving horse is more likely to keep moving.  Taking the horse a step or two to the side is often enough to get things moving again.  If that doesn't work, I immediately back the horse in hand - not as a punishment but to unstick the feet moving and usually when I ask for forward it's right there.

Also, when my horses have their halters on, we're working, even if we're just leading to turnout.  Therefore, I'm responsible to pay attention at all times to the horse, and the horse to me.  And my horses don't graze if they're wearing a halter and I'm holding a lead - this eliminates those struggles where the horse wants to dive for grass - but only if you're completely consistent about it.  Letting the horse graze sometimes and getting mad at them other times doesn't make any sense to the horse.  I realize some people are in situations where the only grazing their horse can get is hand grazing.  In that case it may be a good idea to teach the horse a "graze now" cue.  I don't need to do that because my horses have daily turnout with either grass or free choice hay.

I have found that this basic leading work can be great for improving the attention the horse and handler pay to each other - to do it correctly both have to pay close attention.  And the handler has to provide clear, consistent leadership - this is necessary for effective work with the horse in all sorts of situations.  And the result is a horse that has learned what you want and can be confident that it is doing the right thing.  And once my horse knows how to lead well, there are lots of interesting exercises we can do together to develop our mutual attention and relationship.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Finally a (Brief) Trail Ride

Today Pie and I got in a quick trail ride - we didn't go far, only a couple of hundred yards from the barn and back again.  It was 11 days since we'd had a ride and 15 since our last solo outing.  The wind chill was  23F, so it didn't feel that bad after all the very cold weather we've had recently.  I'm fighting some sore of cold/respiratory thing but I was determined to ride if only briefly.  So I set a time of 2:00 p.m. and just did it.  Considering that it was cold and that we haven't been out much lately, Pie did well.  His walk was very forward, even away from the barn.  We had a momentary balk by the pond when he found the square ice skating area cleared on the ice somewhat alarming - or maybe it was the shovel sticking out of the snow.  He was reluctant to pass and would have preferred to turn back, but I just kept turning his head back in the direction I wanted to go and chirped to him and after a few minutes he made it by.  Our trip outward was uneventful, although he was very alert and occasionally would look around back towards the other horses and the barn.

On the way back, he was very interesting in moving quickly at the walk and was not responding well to my asks to slow with my seat and was head-shaking when we did serpentines.  So as soon as he started thinking about moving too fast - I didn't want any momentum building up - I turned him to face away from the barn and we just stood there for a moment on a loose rein.  It helped a lot that he already has done the just standing around exercise - he can stand still even if he's full of energy.  Then I ask him to back softly for a few steps - he does this well now - since that relaxation of the top line helps with emotional relaxation - and would then turn him back to the barn, and the moment he thought about going too fast, I turned him back away from the barn again and we stood.  All this work was done on a loose rein - I wanted him to choose to walk at a moderate pace and not rush, or else choose to walk too fast and have me do the resulting turn and stand - it was his call.  Generally, I follow the philosophy that I need to give the horse a real choice - I want the choice I'm looking for to be easier, but I also don't want to make the wrong choice so hard that it's impossible.  After a number of repetitions of this, he was able to walk back most of the way at an appropriate pace.  His head stayed high, but he held it together very well.  He shows very good signs of being able to develop good emotional self-control.

When we got back to the scary cleared ice square, it was right by a cut off back to the barn.  Pie was very interested in darting through that opening.  We did a bit more turning and circling and then I directed him down the path the long way round.  This resulted in more active head-shaking, and I just "grrred" at him and told him to cut it out.  We also did some more stopping and backing - one time I got some brief pawing when I asked him to back, but he didn't persist with that.  When we got back to the barn, we did a few minutes of cone work at the walk and with a little trotting - the footing wasn't great.  He was very good and relaxed for this, so I untacked and turned him back out with his friends.

Not too bad for a 4 year old horse who's rarely ridden out alone, in the middle of winter - I'll take that - it's a perfectly good foundation to build on.  If the weather holds we might get in a few more rides this week.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Of 12 Packs and 6 Packs

I missed out on a chance to ride yesterday - it was warmer than they'd forecasted - low 20sF - and the wind wasn't too bad - but I hadn't planned to ride so the day got away from me.  And my back was somewhat sore - my back's often sore and sometimes worse than sore, due to some old injuries (including one time when I was jumping and my horse fell right before the fence and I went flying, head first, directly into one of the uprights that was set in concrete - and my helmet came off (not that it would have helped much since it was one of the old "decorative" ones)).  That'll do a job on your neck and back, not to mention giving you a pretty good concussion.  And there are all the times I've picked up heavy things without using good body mechanics . . .

Anyway, this morning I didn't feel too bad and was up picking poo in Pie's paddock (nice alliteration, that!).  He'd left me what my husband and I jokingly call a 12 pack - 12 piles of poo.  That got me thinking about 6 packs (as in abdominal muscles, not beer).  I'm planning to ride two horses at the Mark Rashid clinic in May, and I'm not in shape to do that.  I'm also getting older and need to pay more attention to my diet and fitness - I sort of take it for granted that I eat healthily (and we mostly do) and that all the work at the barn I do and the riding are enough for fitness.  But my diet's not that healthy right now - I sort of let things get away from me over the holidays and haven't been eating as well and have added some pounds - weight's not usually much of an issue for me and I don't even own a scale but my clothes are tight, which is a good sign I'm carrying too much.  And my fitness level is mediocre - to ride in the clinic I need to be significantly fitter than I am now, particularly in terms of core strength and aerobic fitness.

So here's the plan.

On diet:

Eat mostly vegetarian, with some fish and very occasional meat.
Nothing that comes in a package (except things like plain rice, beans, canned tomatoes, etc.) - e.g. no industrially processed food.
No deep-fried food, and be careful about the cheese and dairy.
Eat more at home and less out, and watch portion sizes.
Less alcohol - there's a lot of calories there that have no nutritional value.
No snacking between meals or at bedtime except for a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts.
Eat mindfully - don't eat while doing something else and enjoy every bite.

That may sound severe, but it's actually not that far from how I'm eating now.  I used to eat mostly vegetarian, with lots of beans and legumes and wonderful vegetables of all types - there's almost no vegetable that I don't enjoy.  So it shouldn't be hard.

On exercise and fitness:

Take a long (at least 3 miles), brisk walk every day, at a speed sufficient to have some aerobic benefits.
Start doing the core exercises I have from when I was in physical therapy a number of years ago, and also exercise my quads - they've been feeling weak and are important for posture (and riding).
Maintain good posture all the time - chin in and back, shoulders relaxed and core muscles lightly engaged.
Continue doing stall cleaning and paddock picking - it's good strength training.

Sort of New Year's resolutions a bit late!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Ears Have It

Here we are in the depths of winter, and not much riding is going on.  So, just for fun, a parade of ears!

First up is Norman - I love how the hair on the inside of his ears is a paler while the hair on the outside is more chocolate:

And here's Lily - her ears are enormous and very mobile and expressive:

Maisie has delicate ears, and when they're pricked they make a lovely shape:

Dawn's ears can be more alert than any horse I've ever met, and she's often (almost always) focussed on something:

Except when she's skeptical:

Or asleep:

Pie's ears are very shapely, and I love their rich red color, and I'm fond of his long forelock:

The ears have it!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Respect, Obedience and Submission

One of the interesting things about language is how imprecise it is.  I expect this is the source of many, if not most, human misunderstandings.  Take the words "respect", "obedience" and "submission".  I rarely if ever use any of those words in my writing, or thoughts, about horses.  I do think those words have a variety of meanings, and are used in different ways by different people.  To me, those words have a strong negative flavor, perhaps because of my background in traditional (very coercive) schools of horse-training - as in "ask him, make him, tell him" training. I've also seen "natural horsemanship" (a pretty useless descriptor in my opinion) methods that are very coercive, at least in my opinion.  I think it's also a question of where you personally want to go with your horse and what sort of relationship you're aiming for.  I think humans by nature tend to be a species that often wants to dominate and control - both others in their own species and animal species - and I think the terminology of "respect", "obedience" and "submission" can sometimes bring out these darker aspects of the human psyche.  I think if these terms are used, or thought, it alters how the human interacts with the horse.

Starting with "respect".  Too often in working with horses, it's a euphemism for dominance, or control, or having a horse that is afraid of what will happen if it doesn't comply, or has been run in a round pen until it will seek relief from the pressure in any way it can.  But the word respect can have a positive meaning - when I use the term I use it in the sense that the horse should look to me as a calm, attentive leader that the horse can trust - I think what I'm really saying is that true respect (as opposed to compliance) is a relationship where the horse can give its trust to a human leader, and respect that leader to the degree that the leader respects the horse and its feelings.  This in my mind has almost nothing to do with being a horse's "alpha" or dominating the horse.

I think what a lot of people mean when they say "my horse doesn't respect me" is that their horse has terrible ground manners and walks all over them (almost always as a result of what the human has, usually inadvertently, taught or failed to teach the horse to do) - why should your horse respect you if you don't pay attention to the horse's asks or provide clear leadership and direction?  They may also mean that my horse doesn't do the action or movement I want the horse to do - which again is often (almost always) due to human failure to be clear, consistent or focussed, or may come from pain, fear or lack of understanding on the part of the horse.  There's nothing sadder than seeing a rider "get after" a horse - read use bit/crop/whip/spurs to punish, or that wonderful euphemism "motivate" - when the horse is confused, worried or in pain.  They may get compliance and think they have their horse's "respect" when what they have is a mechanical horse that complies only due to coercion and fear of pain.  That's not a relationship because the horse's feelings about what is happening are ignored or dismissed.  That's the route people go who don't know or don't care, and who are happy with a horse that's a piece of sports equipment rather than a partner.

A quote from Mark Rashid's Whole Heart, Whole Horse: Building Trust Between Horse and Rider (reviewed in this post):
. . . it is not uncommon at clinics to see horse owners being pushed, pulled, knocked into, dragged around, gnawed on, run past or through, and sometimes even knocked over.  Many folks refer to this type of behavior as the horse being disrespectful or having a total lack of regard for the person handling them.  But before labeling a horse as disrespectful, I believe it is important to understand that the vast majority of behavior domestic horses offer - whether good, bad or indifferent - in relation to humans has been taught to them in some way, shape or form by a human.  For many folks, that idea can be a hard pill to swallow. (p. 33)
The same applies to "obedience" and "submission".  To me these terms also have strong negative connotations of control, dominance and a horse that's not allowed to be the other side of a conversation or have an opinion.  A lot of people talk about "submission to the aids", but that can encompass methods like rollkur in dressage (or its euphemism "low, deep and round").  I don't like that the word can include things like this and I think (and hope) that many of those who use the word really mean something else like "willing compliance", although it isn't necessarily the case that submission to the aids is a good thing - sometimes the horse is just putting up with an aid because it has to even if much less would do.  There's a big difference between compliance and willing compliance - compliance is something you get from the outside of the horse (sports equipment) and willing compliance is something that comes from the relationship between human and horse and which comes from the inside of the horse.  I don't just make these distinctions because I want to be "nice" to my horses - in fact just being "nice" gets a lot of people in trouble since they fail to provide their horse with leadership and direction that lead to a horse that's a pleasure to be around and work with.  I believe that, although it may feel good to have a horse that is compliant, I can go much farther with my horses and our work together by aiming for willing compliance - there's great power in a relationship with a willing horse that allows some pretty wonderful things to be accomplished by the horse and human together.  Here are two quotes from Ross Jacobs's book Old Men and Horses: a Gift of Horsemanship (reviewed in this post) that pretty much sum up what I mean:
I think a large part of [the old men's] secret with horses was that they never saw any horse as other than an equal. Today trainers talk about dominance and submission, alpha horses and herd behaviour. But for the old men, there was never any talk about who was boss and who was in control. To them, working with a horse was a co-operative venture. (p. 63)
The difference between horsemanship and good horsemanship is the difference between having a horse work for you and having a horse work with you. (p. 66)
I recently did this post on the equine virtues, and you'll notice that the words "respect", "obedience" and "submission" nowhere appear.  I've got some terms I use which I prefer, as I think using (and thinking) them puts me into a different frame of mind.  The words I use include attention, forward/impulsion/responsiveness and willingness/softness, but I think those traits have to be developed in the horse by my providing leadership and direction and modeling those virtues, as well as the other virtues, to the horse - it's all one thing together.

Now I do use some pressure/release techniques in working with my horses, and those are to a degree negative stimuli, but I try to end up with cues, and a communication with the horse, that is a soft as possible and I don't punish the horse for trying things and giving me the "wrong" answer.  I almost never carry a crop or whip and never wear spurs (I used to routinely do this in the old days) and don't believe these are needed to communicate with the horse.  I will use a secondary aid if needed - but all this consists of is making a noise with a crop on my own boot or chap to reinforce "now" and this isn't needed once the horse understands what I want.  I will also do anything I have to do, and get as big as I need to, to keep a horse out of my personal space, and I will give an immediate correction (a correction that isn't done almost instantaneously is worthless) to a horse that has attempted to kick or bite me, even if the horse has cause - these are safety issues and the horse has to clearly understand my boundaries.  There's a big spectrum of negative stimuli ranging all the way from very soft cues to outright coercion where the horse is forced into a position or action by pain and/or fear and has no choice at all but to comply.  I think the language of "asking" the horse rather than thinking of cues (I use this term instead of aids) as "tells" or "makes" makes a difference too.  Most horses that are physically able to do so are happy to comply with the requests of a leader who is calm, consistent, clear and fair.

In closing, another quote from Ross Jacobs:
If a person strives to gain the most out of a relationship with a horse, they need to have a fair degree of humility. One needs to accept that the horse has a great deal to teach us and that nobody knows more about the needs of the horse than the horse. From experience, I can tell you that this is incredibly difficult to achieve. Most people have a very strong sense of superiority when it comes to animals. We believe that we are smarter and we know what's best. It's almost impossible to discard this smugness because it is so vigorously fueled by the notion of owning the animal. If I own an animal, I must be the superior. This is how most of us think whether we admit it or not. I believe when we have this attitude toward our horses we inevitably make it the horses' responsibility to obey our wishes. . . .[T]he most important job [people who have horses] have is to make the horse feel good inside himself. [H]aving horses in your life is about accepting a responsibility for their well-being on the inside and on the outside - it isn't about ownership and it isn't about what a horse owes us. (p. 49-51)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pie is Endearing, Norman is Cute and a Link on Clicker

Last night, wind chills got down to -25F (-32C), so Pie was in his stall for the night.  Today, due to our lack of shelters in the dry lots, the horses will probably be stuck inside for most of the day.  Wind chills are supposed to creep up to the -5F range by the end of the day, so the horses may get a brief time to run around before coming back in.  Pie did get a very quick turnout with Scout while his stall was being cleaned, and I was pleased to see him drink from the heated water trough as he doesn't drink much from his heated stall bucket.

* * * * * *
It was already plenty cold and the wind was picking up yesterday afternoon as I walked to the barn - it's a couple of hundred yards from my house.  As I came over the hill in sight of the barn, I whistled to the horses and they all left the round bales and galloped to their gates to be brought in - they were cold and ready.  When I went to get Dawn, the three mares put on quite a display - rolling, leaping, bucking, kicking and galloping. I managed to keep them all out of my space and got Dawn's halter on.  Although she was pretty up, she was good once the lead was on.

The geldings were uncharacteristically well-behaved.  They seem quite happy in very close physical proximity to one another, and were all lined up at the gate.  Our p.m. barn lady was getting Pie when I walked up there, and said that when she took his halter off the gate, he stepped forward - he seemed to recognize that the halter she'd selected was his - I wouldn't put it past him.

I think many, even most, horses have endearing traits.  Pie seems to have many and I just discovered a new one.  When I took him in his stall, I reminded him where his heated water bucket was by dipping out some water in my hand and holding it out to him.  He drank it, and I did it again - he would lap it up and if there was a decent amount of water in my hand he would purse his lips and suck it up.  We did this for a bit - I found it very charming for some reason.  Sweet Pie!

* * * * * *
And, now from warmer climes, here's a picture of Norman the pony enjoying life at Paradigm Farms (thanks for the picture, Melissa!):

* * * * * *
And, finally, if you have interest in clicker training, here's a good post from stalecheerios on improving your clicker skills.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pie and His Reflection

When Pie first came to our barn, and I would ride him on the grassy area behind the barn, he would sometimes become a bit alarmed and excited by our reflection in the big plate glass windows on the back of the barn.  I suspect he'd never seen a reflection in glass before.  Now when I'm riding there, I've noticed that his eye is still often caught by the reflections, although he's no longer worried about them.  I'd always thought it was just because of the sight of movement and the changing light, but recently I noticed something else.  When we were standing close to one of the windows one of the last times we rode (it's been too cold to ride for a while), he was intensely interested in his own reflection in the window.  He wanted to go up and investigate it, so I let him.  It was pretty clear that he didn't just see movement and changing light in the reflection, he saw a horse, and wanted to find out about it.  He touched noses with the horse in the window and seemed a bit perplexed that it wasn't real.  I don't think he recognized that it was in fact himself, but he did pretty clearly seem to know that it was another horse. It was very interesting to observe his reactions and curiosity.  Are your horses ever interested in the horse in the window?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Working Towards Softness 4 - Patience and Self-calming Exercises

For the other posts in the "Working Towards Softness" series, please see the sidebar.  And, as always, please keep in mind that I am not a horse trainer, just a horse person who works in the best way I know how with my horses.  I think of these exercises as progressive, although after you have begun to get the feeling of softness in your own mind and body, the later exercises don't necessarily have to be done in order - it may depend on what the particular horse needs to work on.

* * * * * *
I think that there is a lot we can do to help our horses become calm and patient, which can be especially helpful as a "default" condition when things get worrisome, and also help the horse learn to self-calm and relax after an upset. The most important thing I believe I can bring to the table is to be calm and patient myself, and if the horse is engaging in drama, not to get caught up in that - if I can model calmness and patience to the horse that really helps. But ultimately, I think patience and calm have to come from inside the horse. This post contains several exercises I have used to help my horses with patience and self-calming. You can probably think of many more to try - suggest other things in the comments.

One thing I try to do when doing these exercises - in fact any work with the horse - is to reinforce the behaviors I want with rewards - praise, scratches, a release - and ignore or redirect the behaviors I don't want.  Sometimes giving a horse attention - by correcting a behavior, yelling at the horse, or fussing/fiddling with the horse - even if it's negative attention - merely reinforces the behavior you're trying to prevent/eliminate.

Just standing around.  Before talking about this, it may be helpful to reference a few things from Tom Widdicombe's book Be With Your Horse: Getting to the Heart of Horsemanship (I strongly recommend this book and my review of it can be found here).

Tom repeatedly makes the very important point that how we are with our horse is as important, and probably more important, than what we do with our horse. This is particularly important if my goal is to influence, and change, how the inside of the horse feels about things, and not just apply technique to the outside of the horse.

Here are some representative quotes from the book to give you a flavor:
[I] would like to relax with my horse, but I have realized that for me to be able to relax with my horse, I have to make sure that my horse can relax with me. (p. 33)

I like to establish really early on with a horse that there is a place where we can both be together where nothing is happening, where we both just stand quietly, together. This is the basis of everything I do. Horses feel safe there because there is no pressure and it is easy for them to understand that they are getting it right. (p. 35)

It is very handy to show the horse that he can actually relax - that he can just stand there and rely on you to take care of things. With some horses, it is almost as if they have forgotten how to do nothing, and in a lot of cases this is simply because their owners just do too much. (p. 62)
OK, how does that relate to just standing around?  The exercise is very simple - the horse, wearing a halter and lead, stands with you.  That's it; that's all.  If the horse moves around, don't correct him so long as he stays out of whatever you define (consistently) as your personal space - in my case an arms' length.  It's OK for me to approach the horse and touch him but not OK for the horse to come into my space.  Pretty soon, most horses figure out that all they have to do is stand there with you.  It's good to start work with a horse on this in a familiar place and where things are low stress.  The objective is for the horse to learn that being with you is a safe place to relax and just be - this helps build basic trust.

Later, once the horse has learned to relax and be with you, you can try this exercise in different situations.

Standing still under saddle.  This is a variation of the just standing around exercise.  I pick a location, and ask the horse to stand still on a loose rein.  If the horse moves, I don't correct the horse, I just calmly redirect the energy (not using any aids to keep the horse moving) by turning the horse in a smallish circle until the horse offers on its own to stop (this can take a while until the horse figures out what you want).  It doesn't matter if the horse ends up in the same spot you started in.  If the horse is nervous, you may spend several sessions just mostly doing circles with a few moments of standing in between - that's OK.  Most horses pretty quickly figure out that all they have to do is stand there and either doze or look around.  Once the horse knows how to do this, we do the exercise in different situations, such as in an arena while other horses are working, watching horses being led in from turnout, on the trail, etc.

As you're working to lengthen the time the horse can stand still, try to ask for "one second less than . . ." - that is, if you think the horse can stand still for only 5 seconds without moving, only ask for 4 seconds and then direct the horse to move off before the horse decides to move on its own.  This means you are giving the horse help and direction.  And if you wait too long and the horse moves before you direct it to move, just circle, wait for the offer to stop and try again.  This isn't a black and white sort of thing - it's an incremental skill that can be developed over time.

A further version of this is to dismount, walk away a few steps and then come back to the horse, with the horse standing still until you return.  Gradually increase the distance.  Eventually, the horse should be able to stand wherever you leave him until you return.  It is usually helpful to teach the horse to stand ground tied (see below) before doing this variation.  Here is Maisie standing while tacked:

Standing tied.  This presumes that you have a horse that ties well and doesn't pull back - it's also important to not try this exercise with a horse whose energy level is so high that there's no way for the horse to be successful - set your horse up to succeed.  (This exercise is also not about tying a horse to a fixed object and allowing it to fight and struggle until it gives up hope and submits, or injures itself - this isn't a humane way to teach tying or to deal with a horse who already has tying problems, and the horse can be seriously injured, not to mention have its trust destroyed, in the process.  Using "learned helplessness" to "train" is a losing game in my opinion - it may work in the short term but even if someone is willing to do this sort of thing to a horse it causes shutting down and emotional damage that can cause big problems later.)

The objective is for the horse to stand tied quietly and without fussing, pawing, etc.  I don't care if the horse calls, although if the horse is calm it probably won't be calling.  The important thing here is to not pay much attention to what the horse is doing - just let it figure things out and certainly don't say anything to the horse or correct it for moving around or pawing - that's just giving the horse attention, even if negative attention, for the behaviors you don't want.  Very short intervals of standing still should be rewarded at the beginning, and the horse should only be approached, praised or untied when it's standing still in relative calm, if only for a few seconds.  Most horses pretty quickly learn that they can rest and relax rather than fuss.  In the case of horses who start out very fussy or need to move around a lot, tying to a high line may be a better option to start with - the horse can safely move around as much as it wants which can be helpful as the horse learns to stand still on its own initiative.

Eventually, the horse should be able to stand tied for long periods without fussing in a variety of situations.  One of my favorite variants is to tie one horse in the arena while I'm working with another horse - it's good for both horses.

Ground tying.  This can come in handy in all sorts of situations, from grooming, to tacking, to farrier work.  After just standing around, it's one of my favorite exercises to help a horse learn to relax with me, and I usually start with grooming, which most horses enjoy.  I just take the horse to the location I want and drop the lead.  When the horse takes a step in any direction, I don't constrain or stop the horse but ask the horse to circle me until it offers to stop - watch carefully for the slight hesitation that indicates an offer to stop.  Drop the rope and repeat.  As with the other exercises, it doesn't matter if the horse ends up in the same place you started.  Most horses figure out pretty quickly that all they have to do is stand still.  Once the horse is used to ground tying, you can do the same walk away from the horse exercise described above, and can also do other activities with the horse while ground tied - saddling, unsaddling, etc.

Here are a couple of photos of my horses standing ground tied:

Standing still for mounting.  My objective is for the horse to approach the mounting block on its own, stand next to it in an appropriate position, and stand still on a loose rein until I've mounted and adjusted my stirrups and reins and asked the horse to move off.  This exercise is really a variant of the standing still under saddle and ground tying exercises, with the added element of approaching the block and standing in the correct position.  For this exercise, it's important to break it down into steps and reward the horse for incremental progress by taking breaks, praising the horse and just walking around for a minute or two before returning to the exercise.  It's also important to have the horse learn to choose for itself the correct options rather than being put, or placed, into position, or held there.  Everything should be done on a loose rein and the horse should have the option to move, so it can learn to choose to move where you want it to and to stand still in the correct location.

I usually do this exercise initially with a halter and lead under the bridle, as it makes it easier to direct the horse.  You may need to break this down into more steps than I describe.  I get up on the block and chirp to the horse to encourage it to move, and keep chirping until the horse approaches the block.  Walk around as a reward.  Repeat, this time continuing to chirp until the horse is close to the block next to you.  Repeat, this time rewarding if the horse comes up even with you.  If the horse just keeps on moving, don't stop or constrain the horse but continue chirping and direct the horse around you in a circle - you stay on the block.  The objective is to chirp until the horse is in position next to you - then stop chirping and reward with a walk around.  Once you've chirped and the horse is standing next to you, in a number of steps, put your foot in the stirrup, take it away and reward if the horse stands (if the horse moves at any point, immediately get down and direct the horse in a circle while chirping until the horse is back in position); put weight in the stirrup, get down and reward; put weight in the stirrup and lean across the saddle, and reward; put weight in the stirrup and one knee on the saddle, and reward; etc.  Again, if the horse moves even a bit (other than shifting weight or moving a foot to regain balance), jump down and direct the horse around again.  The last step is to mount, still on a loose rein, adjust and fiddle with your stirrups and sit quietly for a moment until you direct the horse to move off - the horse should not move until you ask.

Here is a sequence of photos with Dawn, showing the steps in this exercise (without the very important walking around for a reward in between steps):

If you mount from the ground, you can do this exercise with that modification - I tend to use a mounting block to spare my knees and the horse's back.

Scary object work.  One important principle of this work is that the horse must be able to make a choice. It's the choosing that builds courage and the ability to self-calm and spook in place rather than fleeing.  Scary object work, in my opinion, should never be done with the horse tied up or constrained in a way where its not allowed to move its feet or overwhelmed by something that is too scary. Having the horse in a halter on a long lead can be helpful as long as it's just used to define the work space and not to make the horse do things - the lead needs to be long to give the horse freedom to move - I use a 10' lead and a web halter.  If the horse is forced to put up with being scared and cannot move its feet to get to a comfortable distance, in my opinion you will end up with a horse that's either more afraid than when you started or shut down and emotionally overwhelmed rather than calm and brave, which is a recipe for later disasters - another example of learned helplessness which is damaging to the horse's trust and long-term emotional and mental stability.  Scary object work for me also isn't really about desensitizing the horse to specific objects or situations - it's more about building a more general ability to deal with scary things, self-calm and trust the human handler/rider.

A relevant quote from Temple Grandin's book Animals Make Us Human (terrible title, great book - my review is here):
When you're working with animals, novelty can be attractive or scary depending on how it is presented. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object.  Animals are terrified by forced novelty. (p. 147)
I've had good luck using clicker for this.  I usually start with the horse in a smaller space - say a paddock or round pen.  I reward the horse being willing to take a step towards the object, then two steps, etc. and once the horse is able to approach the object and touch it, then I can do other things, like have the object make a noise (flapping plastic, turning on clippers).  Then I reward the horse for not moving its feet.  The object can also be used to (slowly and carefully) touch the horse.  It's important when doing this work to not go too fast or overstress the horse - pay careful attention to the horse's expression and level of tension - the object is for things to be easy and simple.  Let the horse set the pace and never move faster, or ask the horse to approach closer, than the horse is comfortable with.  Some horses find this work much harder than others, and take that into account too.  I'm rewarding courage and trust and feel these exercises help the horse develop some resources to self-calm and to also spook in place rather than move their feet.  Clicker is very good for this because you can reward the slightest increment of try with a click without having to pressure the horse, and many horses are highly motivated by food and can overcome fears more easily if food is involved as a reward.

If you're using clicker (and I'm far from an expert), there are some important first steps - the horse must associate the click (I just use my tongue to make the click) with the reward; it's important to teach the horse not to mooch (and in fact clicker can be a great way to help the horse to learn to stay out of your space); and you must be careful to reward immediately precisely the (very small) try in the right direction that you're looking for.  I have found books by Alexandra Kurland on clicker training very helpful.

Dawn Gets Up and Farrier Visit

Yesterday, my farrier came to do Dawn and Pie.  When I went to get Dawn from turnout, she was sleeping in hay next to the round bale, out of the wind.  She was all curled up - I always think it's amazing how horses' legs fold up when they're lying down - and had very sleepy eyes.  She noticed my approach, but was happy to stay there dozing while I stroked her face and neck.  But we couldn't keep the farrier waiting, so I slipped her halter on and asked her to get up - poor thing having her nap interrupted.  It took a few asks, but then she slowly extended her front legs out, heaved herself up and shook herself off, and came with me to the barn.

Dawn's still in her shoes with borium spots on toes and heels, and wears full snow pads.  Both my horses were very good for the farrier.  This was Pie's second professional trim, and he couldn't have been more perfect.  He did give one or two "Pie faces" but didn't move a muscle.  The farrier commented on his beautiful feet, including his broad heels and solid hoof substance.

Drifter is terrible about having his feet handled.  Pie wasn't great when I got him, but mostly about picking them up due to lack of handling, and the issue cleared up within days.  Drifter is more resistant - he picks them up but then wants to pull them away, or even cow kick in the case of the hinds.  His owner is planning to have him trimmed before he comes to me, so that'll give me a number of weeks to work with him before the next farrier visit.  Since he's so motivated by positive reinforcement, and I have no intention of wrestling with him - he's a big horse - I think I may try using clicker to help him learn how fun and interesting it is to hold up his feet for as long as necessary.  I'll be interested to see how quickly he picks up what I'm asking - I'm guessing he'll be right on it.

* * * * * *
We've been having a stretch of cold and windy weather, so no riding has been happening.  The next few days wind chills are going to be in the single digits F during the day and around or slightly below zero at night.  Thursday night wind chills are going to drop into the range of -20F, and I'll bring Pie inside for the night.  Friday the horses may not get much turnout as things aren't going to warm up much during the day and the winds are supposed to be fierce.  I'm just hoping the very cold snap is a short one!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Developing the Virtues - Drifter

This is a follow-on post to my post "Virtues Instead of Actions" and my posts on developing Dawn's virtues and on developing Pie's virtues.

Drifter and I haven't spent that much time together yet, but I was with him for about two hours, including almost an hour of working with him and riding him.  I think I've got some insights into where he stands at this point on the virtues - it'll be interesting to see what more I learn about him when he arrives (assuming all goes well with the vet check) in March.  Here's what I think we've got:

Attention.  I think this virtue is one that he innately has, but he hasn't recently had a leader who's asked for his attention under saddle.  The contrast between his behavior when doing groundwork and when ridden was quite noticeable.  He was very attentive during the groundwork - his owner had done lots of that with him and gave him the leadership he needed.  The benefit of this is that his manners when led are excellent, and he is very good about staying out of my space. When ridden, he wanted to ignore his rider, take over and make the decisions - mainly, I think, because he was used to doing this because his owner didn't provide him the guidance he needed.  I suspect this virtue will come through in ridden work pretty quickly.

Patience.  I think this is a virtue that should be relatively easy to develop.  So far, he hasn't been asked to hold his feet up for picking, or stand still when tied and being groomed and saddled instead of wiggling around, or stand still at the mounting block.  Once again, I think it's just a matter of asking him to do it and giving lots of positive reinforcement for tries in the right direction.  When his owner had a lot of trouble mounting him because he wouldn't stand still, I spent about five minutes working with him on it and he clearly was willing and able to do it once he understood what I wanted - I think he appreciated someone being clear about it.

Curiosity/ability to experiment/playfulness.  I was pleased with his work on standing still for mounting and also some softening work at the walk - he'd clearly never been asked to do either but pretty quickly figured out what I wanted.  There is a nervous edge on him - he seems to me like a horse that's been pushed and picked at and not given enough time to think and process - he worries that he may be wrong and about what's going to happen when he is wrong.  I don't think this part of the equation comes from his current owner - it probably dates back to some other earlier training he received.  He did walk right up to me in the pasture, and sniffed my face, so he's curious and willing to investigate.

Forward/impulsion/responsiveness.  He's got good natural confirmation to be able to carry himself using his core with a relaxed top line - he just hasn't been asked to do it.  He struggled initially with the softening work at the walk we did in our session, but once he got it, it was really there - I got some moments where he was using his core and relaxing his top line.  I think he's going to find this work a bit easier physically than Pie will - Drifter does travel without using his core but he's not as inverted as Pie is.  He's pretty responsive to the aids, but also a bit rushy - this is a bit of the worry and nervousness coming through, and to be fair he hadn't been ridden but a few times over the previous 5 months.  I did get some resistance to the aids - some bracing on the bit and even some tail swishing - but I think this was more about his reluctance to give up leadership (since he'd had to provide it because his owner didn't) than about him being touchy or resistant.  I think he'll turn out to be plenty responsive without being hyper-sensitive.

Willingness/softness.  He showing his willingness in the work on standing for mounting and softening at the walk - his owner was delighted with the progress he was able to make in the short time I worked with him.  I think once I can show him that I will provide consistent, fair leadership, he'll be pretty happy about that and able to further develop emotional and mental softness, hand in hand with the physical softening work we'll be doing.

Kindness/sociability.  He seems to have a sweet, people-friendly disposition.  Any variation from this seems largely due to his having to make decisions since his owner didn't provide him with guidance and direction, or because he's developed bad habits - such as taking his feet away rather than holding them up for picking.

Calmness/relaxation.  There's that edge of worry and nervousness, but I think that's an overlay on what is basically a pretty laid-back personality.  I think the worry and nervousness will dissipate once he can rely on me for leadership - he isn't really a dominant horse, he's been forced into the leadership position and I think will pretty happily give it up.

Self-confidence.  I think he's a pretty confident horse - he was able to step up and make his own decisions when his owner didn't provide leadership, but I think he'll be happier having a human leader to rely on.

Trust/trustworthiness/supportiveness.  This is one that will take development - he's not sure that he can trust people to direct him - I think the trust will develop along with the mental softening that will come with the rest of the work we do together.  I suspect he's going to turn into a great partner.

I'm hoping that the vet check will go well, and looking forward to starting work with him when he gets here, and seeing how accurate my preliminary assessment is!

Developing the Virtues - Pie

This is a follow-on post to my post "Virtues Instead of Actions" and my post on developing Dawn's virtues.

I've had Pie for almost three months now, and we've had a lot of time to interact and I've also gotten in over 30 rides on him so far.  I feel I've got a pretty good handle on who he is, and where we need to go with our work, although his personality/behaviors are still developing due to his young age - he'll be 5 at the end of April.  I'm also extremely fortunate with him, as he's had very good early training and treatment, so no virtues have been repressed or deformed.

Attention.  For a young horse, Pie is very good on this one.  All we really need to do is to work on developing his attention span and ability to concentrate on the work for extended periods.

Patience.  Again, for a young horse, he ranks very high on this one - I think his basic personality is patient.  He already ties well - occasional pawing but really very little of that.  I don't know if he ground ties - I suspect not - so we'll work on that, as well as more just standing around work.

Curiosity/ability to experiment/playfulness.  He is a very curious and playful horse, and also isn't afraid to try things out in response to asks - he isn't afraid of being punished or rushed along like so many horses are due to their "training".  He does have the bad habit of wanting to  play with Scout - his best buddy - when we're out on a ride together - he needs to understand the distinction between "horse time" and "work time" a bit better, but we're working on it.  It might be fun to do some trick training with him using clicker - he's very intelligent and tuned in and it might give him a good outlet for his playfulness.

Forward/impulsion/responsiveness.  He's pretty good on this one too - he's quite responsive to the slightest aids, because that's how he was trained.  And I think as new things are introduced, he'll be responsive to them, too.  He's not a particularly forward horse by disposition - he'd prefer to take things easy - but his responsiveness makes that not an issue.  His throttle is a bit "sticky" right now - he tends to leap into transitions rather than make them smoothly and quietly, but that's going to be pretty easy to adjust.  His forward also seriously lacks impulsion right now since he tends to travel inverted - he just sort of bops along without engaging his core.

Willingness/softness.  Pie is one of those rare horses who's pretty mentally soft already without much physical softness.  As noted above under "forward", he isn't really using his core or relaxing his top line yet - this is going to be our big task for this spring and summer.  It's going to be hard work for him and will gradually change his posture and muscling.  I also need to more consistently do carrot stretching with him to help him relax his top line muscles.  I don't think this work with him will be hard - it'll just take time and consistency on my part.  Working on this will also develop his patience and attention.

Kindness/sociability.  He's a very kind and sociable horse, without being a mooch or pushy - just about perfect on this front.  He still needs to learn that he can enjoy the work we do together - our relationship is still being built.

Calmness/relaxation.  He already ranks high on this one.  He's a horse who can get excited or spooked - any horse can and he's only 4, but he's basically level-headed and calms down pretty quickly if something bothers him.  His normal is calm and relaxed.  All he needs on this one is continued exposure to new situations, and lots of trail miles, including on new trails.

Self-confidence.  For a young horse, he's very self-confident and assured.  He never doubts that he can figure things out or handle a situation.  This fits in well with his basic inclination to be calm and patient.  It is possible to feel calm and reassured just being around him - he just radiates those traits.  As with calmness, in order to continue to develop this virtue, I just need to continue to expose him to new situations and learning opportunities, and give him adequate time to try out things as he learns so his confidence continues to build.  I'd like to get him some cattle work as well - he's already done this and it would be a great continuing confidence-builder.

Trust/trustworthiness/supportiveness.  This is one we'll work on together as our relationship develops.  He's already shown that he can trust - he'd done very little riding out alone with his prior owner, and he's already done quite a bit of that with me.  I just need to continue to demonstrate that I'm trustworthy, and to trust him as well, and this will come right along.

Easy as Pie!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Developing the Virtues - Dawn

In the comments to my post on developing my horses' virtues, billie make the point that these virtues are inherent in the horse and it's not as if we, the people, bestow them on the horse.  I think my choice of the word "develop" may have been a bit off - it's a bit like people saying "I taught my horse to do a lead change".  No, you didn't, the horse knew how to do one already and you just had to communicate clearly what you wanted and then make sure you weren't getting in the way by "helping" with your body and position but were in balance and allowing the horse's movement.  But a movement (lead change) isn't quite like a virtue (say, patience) either - I do think each horse, due to its innate temperament and personality, has a stronger or weaker component of a virtue to begin with.  Also, virtues in horses may have been repressed or stunted by prior "training", and the virtues I want are also about how the horse feels and acts in connection with a human rider or handler.  So in that sense, the word "develop" is appropriate, and I'll continue to use it but in the sense I've been discussing.

I also believe that my horses can help me develop my own virtues by helping me to develop my weaker ones, and by requiring me to model the virtues to them, to the extent that I can.

As a reminder, here is the list of virtues I put together, with some good additions/modifications some of you suggested in the comments (thanks!):

Curiosity/ability to experiment/playfulness

None of these virtues are really separate, but relate to and interact with the others.  I'm going to do a post on each horse evaluating where we are with the virtues, and where I'm seeing us going next.  We'll start with Dawn.

Attention.  Dawn's come a long way on this one already - when I started working with her she could be amazingly inattentive - even when leading, she would get distracted by something, turn her head and run right into me.  While she can still be distracted, she's much better about returning her attention to the task at hand.  She is capable of intense focus and concentration, which is a real asset.  On this one, we just need to be matter-of-fact about keeping our mutual attention on the work, and returning our attention immediately, without fuss, to the work when our attention strays.  She and I will work on this virtue for both of us.  I think we need to build this virtue before we'll be ready to tackle more challenging situations where she might be inclined to "go away" from our conversation and endanger herself or me.

Patience.  Dawn's patience - being willing to stand around under saddle, and to stand still for mounting, and to work through things she's uncertain of while staying calm and not getting frustrated, has improved enormously.  She can work for extended periods of time now - she's much more mature and less of a "young horse" in her mental attitude.  We need to reinforce her ground tying as we haven't done much of that lately.

Curiosity/ability to experiment/playfulness.  Curiosity is a very strong trait in Dawn.  It's allowed us to make good progress in our scary object work.  She can be overly rigid/perfectionist in her responses to asks - she sometimes worries that she has to be "right" and will anticipate or rush in her hurry to give the right response.  I'd like her to slow down and think more and be less reactive, and to be more willing to try out possible responses without worrying.  With her, I need to be careful to ask very softly (she's my zero pressure horse) and allow her an opportunity to respond and try - I need to be slower myself to allow her not to feel pressured.  I might try some trick training with her to encourage her playful side.

Forward/impulsion/responsiveness.  One way to think about where Dawn stands on this one is to say that she has too much of this virtue - which means that she really doesn't fully have it.  She's all go all the time - but often it's rushed and without the relaxation/calmness that needs to be paired with it.  But she's certainly a horse that moves off the aids - in fact one of her challenges is accepting even the softest aid without becoming fussed.  I want to work with her towards my aids being as soft as possible, her accepting them and maintaining her relaxation and calmness into her forwardness.  There can't be true impulsion - the horse in self-carriage with an engaged core - without both forward/responsiveness and calmness - getting both at the same time is the trick.  But we've make some good progress on this one already and have already had some really nice moments, particularly at the trot.  We need to work on her walk, and also start work on her canter - this is more of a challenge for her since it's a faster gait - I need to help her focus on the rhythm, and not the pace, of the gait.  Rhythm and straightness both require this virtue and relaxation/calmness to really come through.

Willingness/softness.  Dawn is an alpha, used to directing and controlling her mare herd, and accepting human leadership and direction aren't always easy for her, particularly when coupled with her perfectionism/tendency to worry.  For her this one is all about relaxation, and learning that she will have time to try and will not be punished if she doesn't offer the correct response.  That mental softness, together with our softening work, together will take us a long way.  She's a bit of a show-off, too, which makes her willing to try hard and perform - she's competitive in her own way.  We need to work as well on presenting her with new situations and encouraging her to be willing to accept my leadership as we work through them.

Kindness.  Dawn is demonstrative, including demonstrating frustration, irritation and impatience from time to time.  She is also extremely sweet - she wears her heart on her sleeve and bonds very tightly with people she likes.  She can be very aggressive towards other horses.  I always require good behavior from her - no ear pinning or nipping and no aggression towards other horses while I am interacting with her or in her vicinity.  She needs to always remember that I am there and take responsibility for my safety and know that I will take care of hers.  I'll continue to encourage her mental and emotional softness, which has grown with the work we've done together.

Calmness/relaxation.  This is Dawn's biggest challenge.  She's wired to be very hot and hyper-alert and reactive, so I keep developing this virtue at top of mind in everything I do with her.  If I model calmness and relaxation to her, she does pick it up, although weather (cold or wind) or exciting things going on make it very hard for her.  All our softening work will continue to help with this, since the relaxation of the top line and engagement of the core will help her achieve mental and emotional softness.  We'll continue some of our self-calming work, including standing around work and continued work with scary objects and further developing our spook-in-place.  I must always work with her without any rushing or hurry.

Self-confidence.  This goes very strongly with patience, calmness/relaxation and softness.  As her repertoire of skills and experiences grows, her confidence in herself and her abilities will grow, as well as her confidence in me as a leader - they go hand in hand, I think.

Trust/trustworthiness.  She needs to learn to trust me as her leader, and to know that I will provide trustworthy and consistent leadership.  I need to trust her to try and work hard.  Eventually, we will work to safely expand her experiences into situations where she needs to trust me - such as the trail.  This will take time, but on warmer days when she's very relaxed, we can begin our work on this together.  We've got a long way to go on this one, but as long as we're headed in the right direction I'm satisfied.

I'm really enjoying the challenge Dawn presents to me - I need to step up and model the virtues for her to help her develop her own.  As soon as the weather permits, we'll be back in the arena starting our work again.